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Kool DJ Red Alert

As one of the first DJs to make it onto the radio, Kool DJ Red Alert was there when hip hop history began. In this talk at the 2005 RBMA in Seattle, Red takes us through the days when it was a local phenomenon, confined to a few blocks in the South Bronx. He talks about Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and the other legends who laid down the template. We hear about the records that rocked the block parties, the equipment that was used to blow up the sound, the local stars who thrilled the streets and how hip hop was pimped from day one by a pizza parlour boy who cribbed rhymes from his friend to make the first record.

Audio Only Version Transcript:

RBMA

Here we go again and right now it is my extreme pleasure to welcome to the sofa a real legend in music and someone who has influenced my tastes in a big way, Mr Red Alert.

(applause)

DJ Red Alert

Peace everybody.

RBMA

Just to give you some background, take it back to the mid-/late-'80s, there used to be two main radio stations in New York, WBLS and Kiss FM, and Friday and Saturday nights there were some amazing landmark radio shows going on. Live DJing, hearing records cut up on air, hearing special rhymes and skits that were made especially for those shows. On Kiss FM you had Kool DJ Red Alert and on WBLS you had Marley Marl. These shows were so important to us in New York City that I used to have a tape in and you could hear on all my tapes, when there was a commercial break on Red’s show, I used to tune the radio into WBLS and try to catch a bit of Mister Magic’s show, because you didn’t want to miss a second because there was always something happening. It really set a high standard for what radio could be about for me. I had the chance to see Red play, DJed with him several times. He is always dropping knowledge, whether it’s in the records he plays or stories from back then. So, if you have an interest in how hip hop started or what it’s really all about, then you’ll be interested in what he has to say. I’d like to start by taking it back to where you’re from, the Bronx, and let people know about that.

DJ Red Alert

First, I was born in Antigua in the West Indies and I was raised by my grandparents, they’re from Antigua on my mother’s side, and I grew up in Harlem, in a project which is now called Ralph J Rangle Houses and used to be called Colonial Projects, right behind the Polo Grounds. I have no shame to tell you right how far back it goes. At the time the Polo Grounds was a baseball field, originally the home of the New York Giants, then they moved out to San Francisco and that was when they formed the New York Mets. When I was a tyke, my grandfather, god bless him, used to take me up onto the roof and we’d look straight down and watch the New York Mets. Coming up with my grandparents, in the house was the sounds of calypso,soca, and the American music was Motown, soul classics and some pop hits, like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys. I did not really acknowledge the outskirts of everything else until I got into junior high school, that’s when I got aware of everything else that was going on. When you are raised in a Caribbean household, you don’t know the difference. When I had friends, they’d come over to my grandparents’ house and hear the music they were playing, and they’d say: “Your grandmother's from Jamaica?” “What're you talking about? My grandmother's from here.” I didn’t understand, they thought it was funny. When they saw the food we were eating, they’d say: “Y’all eat Jamaican food.” “No, food is food.” You start understanding later on. After junior high school I went to school in the Bronx, I went to Dewitt Clinton High School, which is where I started listening to a lot of other things. During that time there were the gangs going on in the streets: the Black Spades, the Savage Nomads, and me going to Dewitt Clinton, it was an all-boys school. You can imagine a school of 3/4.000 with nothing but fellows, and you average about seven or eight gangs in there.

RBMA

And you’re talking about the mid-'70s?

DJ Red Alert

I’m talking about the early '70s. Of all the people who I had in my class… I’ll give you a story. First day coming in, there was some books hanging on the edge. I walked past and knocked the books over. The guy said: “Yo, pick up the books.” I just kept walking on, paid him no mind. Me, big, skinny, snotty red afro kid. “Ey, yo man, pick up my books.” I said: “I ain’t picking up shit.” The guy stood up, I saw his full size, he must have been 6’ 6”. I said: “Oh shit!” One thing I learned, if somebody’s bigger than you, you’ve got to pick up stuff. I managed to get out, because some of the classrooms had two doors, so I got out the other side. The word got around through some of the kids in the neighbourhood, and three periods later we caught up with each other. He looked at me and started laughing. He said: “I don’t want to hurt you, you’ve got a lot of heart. You know who I am?” “I don’t know who you are.” “They call me Blood. Where you from?” I said: “I’m from Harlem.” He said: “No wonder.” If anybody’s familiar with boxing, there’s a guy called Mitch Green who always got into it with Mike Tyson, that was the guy who was the leader of the Black Pearls, I got into it with him. Later on I got to know about other people. Before I got into music I was known for playing ball, so I got to know everybody else in the school. I learned about some of these other individuals that was living in the Bronx. Some of them came from Bronx River, my man Tony Rome and a couple of others, they used to always tell me about where they were from. I’d say: “What is it about Bronx River?” They’d say: “Man, you don’t know.” During my time there they’d tell me about these parties up in the Bronx. “You need to come to the jam.” That’s what they’d call them. So the first time I went it was in the Bronx on Jerome Avenue, a broken down area in a condemned building with just a couple of lights. I was a little apprehensive, but I saw a couple of people hanging in the hallway section, the staircase, so I thought maybe it’s alright because people are hanging like it ain’t nothing. I get to the door, they ask for $3, walked in there, saw a whole bunch of people that wasn’t dressed up, just as they are, a whole different kind of awareness. I kept walking straight to the back, ran into this gentleman, a big husky guy that was DJing. I’ll never forget, his set-up was like this: he had a Shure PA system, Shure PA systems at that time were powerful to us. He had a Sony mic-mixer, to which he had two Pioneer PL 15 turntables. He had it all set up, and the way he was playing records was different to other places, or the radio. I thought, 'What’s he doing?' I didn’t think about the party, I just stood there all night watching what he was doing. That gentleman goes by the name of Kool Herc and I started listening to what he was playing, and while he was DJing there was a gentleman by the side on the mic called Coke La Rock, who I consider the first MC. He kept on saying, time after time: “You rock and you don’t stop,” “My mellow,” and there was various people, he kept shouting their names out. Looking to the middle of the dancefloor I saw a lot of fellows doing this kind of footwork that later on was known as breakdancing. I was just amazed by the whole theory of what they’re playing, how they’re dancing, the whole liveliness of how everybody was. And this is just up in the Bronx, so I was going to school up there, bumping into people like Blood and people from Bronx River who introduced me to that sound.

RBMA

What year was this?

DJ Red Alert

This was about 1973, then I just kept going to all his parties. The first was at a place called the Twilight Zone, next was the Hevalo, next was the Executive Playhouse. Meanwhile he was always doing things up in the Bronx at the high school or outdoors. Now at this time, it wasn’t no big advertisement, it was just word of mouth. Now Herc was from Kingston, Jamaica, and he brought over a style they call toasting and dubbing, which became known as rapping and mixing. So as he perfected that and developed a following. Everybody was coming from all over the Bronx and parts of Harlem. That’s what influenced me more and more. Then another thing I tried to do, being a little sneaky guy, was get behind the ropes and see what’s back there. But he’d be: ”Get your ass back out.”

RBMA

Yeah, Herc’s a big guy. That’s where he got his name from, Hercules.

DJ Red Alert

Hercules, because he’s a big strong guy and he shortened it to Herc.

RBMA

Can you remember from that time what records he was playing?

DJ Red Alert

Various records I got to know later on were "The Mexican" by Babe Ruth, "It’s Just Begun" by the Jimmy Castor Bunch, "Do What You Gotta Do" by Collage, "Shaft In Africa" from the soundtrack of the movie, "Listen To Me" by Baby Huey, "Get Into Something" by the Isley Brothers. It was just a host of records he’d put a twist into, right along with the commercial records you’d hear on the radio. Even when he’d play the commercial records he’d still add a twist because he’d blend from one into another.

RBMA

Now, how was what he was doing different from DJ Flowers or some of the disco DJs like Pete DJ Jones?

DJ Red Alert

Usually, some of the DJs in the clubs in Manhattan would play the whole records, but he would just play the ‘get down’ part, which later on was known as the breakbeats. But we used to call it 'the get down' because it was time to get into the groove of how it sounded, whether it was four bars or eight bars. Herc was not a person to go from one record to another on time, but it was just the fact you’d know he would play that and he was ready to go for it. Then he had DJs he hired that were under him called Timmy Tim and the original DJ Clark Kent and they were the ones who would learn how to time the record from one to another. When I was going to the parties there were a whole bunch of other guys there who I didn’t know, but would grow to know later, such as Flash, Mean Gene who was the brother of Grandwizard Theodore, Grandmaster Caz, they was the offspring, the next generation of DJs in the Bronx. So they start becoming DJs in the Bronx, you start going to all their parties and they had certain locations throughout the Bronx.

RBMA

And your cousin Jazzy Jay was also going to these jams at the time?

DJ Red Alert

No, this is how it happened: I was going to the jams and I was being inspired. Then, when I started working I’d go to the store called Discomat, real big at the time, and spend all my money on records. Even though I didn’t have no set yet, I was just collecting the records. Later on I saved up and bought a set, Technics 1800's with a Clubman 1-1 mixer. I had it set up with my mattress on the floor, put my crates right in front of it and my set right on top of it. Have my crates of records right around in front of the bed, put my set in front of me and started DJing. I learnt how to DJ by watching how people were catching certain parts of the record. I’d watch them and go home, before I even got my set, I’d have my little Gerard turntable and I used to put my ear to it and listen for the breaks. After I learnt that my cousin was coming around, he’d say: “Yo man, what’s this you’re doing?” I’d say: “I’m learning how to DJ.” So I’d show him the basics. At the time he was staying in Manhattan, then he moved to the Bronx River projects, he was getting more and more into DJing and for his first set he’d use Technics SL-23’s and a little Clubman mixer. Now as he started DJing, someone put the word to a guy called, rest in peace, Disco King Mario who came from another section of the Bronx. “Yo, this guy called Jazzy, you better check him out.” Disco Mario was known to have a great soundsystem, but he didn’t have turntables or records, very few records, but he was very competitive to the next man I’ll talk about later on. Here it is. He got to hear about my cousin Jazzy: “You want to get down with me? I’ll put you on.” Put him on, had him working, but he was jerking him because he wasn’t paying him. He would get him exposure. Then the next guy I’m talking about said: “Who’s this little youth that’s working with Mario?” “Yo, that’s that kid that just moved into the projects.” “What’s he doing over there? He’s supposed to be down with us.” That guy was Afrika Bambaataa. At the time he had two DJs before Jazzy, one named Zombo and one named Sinbad. One of them had fallen out, he wasn’t down with Bam no more and that’s when he approached my cousin. “You don’t need to be down with them, you’re from the Bronx River projects.” Jazzy kept talking to him about me, “Put my cousin down.” “Who’s your cousin?” “My cousin from over in Manhattan.” So then, when the next DJ fell out he brought me in, and there you have Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay and Red Alert.

RBMA

Can you give me a breakdown of what it was like to work with them? Who was selecting the records, who was putting the records on, what were the roles of people?

DJ Red Alert

First of all, Bam was a very well respected person up in the Bronx because he was a warlord in the Black Spades. What he did during his time was learn to study the African heritage and he went away to study it in Africa, he got more involved on the musical side. His mother had bought him a system, and he learned to tie his between his sense of music and his African heritage and combine. After the gangs he formed a crew called the Organisation, which only lasted about a year, because he still had this wild theory about himself. But then he wanted to get a more conscious environment so he formed the Zulu Nation. When he formed the Zulu Nation he had the b-boys, not only males but also females, he’d call them Shaka Zulu Kings and Shaka Zulu Queens, and they’d be out there breakdancing like he’s the pied piper. That’s how the Zulu Nation started being formed and everybody wanted to join in. But he was letting people into knowledge and heritage and giving people information about the Zulu nation.

RBMA

So he was eliminating the negative aspects of the gangs and emphasising the positivity and the culture.

DJ Red Alert

He turned everything around, said: “I’m tired of all the negativity, I want to show also that there’s a side where we don’t have to downgrade ourselves, we can uplift ourselves and we can do it through music.” Bam was a person who, if he liked you, he’d put you right on. When we were his DJs he had ten MCs: Mr Biggs, Pow Wow, MC Globe, Lisa Lee, Hutch-Hutch, Ice Ice, Master Ice, Master Bee, Charlie Rock and I forgot the last person’s name. There were ten MCs, Bam was known as the master of records because he’d come out with various sounds that no one can describe. He would dig deep into different records, his collection is crazy to this day.

RBMA

He wasn’t just sticking with James Brown?

DJ Red Alert

He’d touch on everything, he’d dig so deep. And the thing about it, to this day my cousin can tell you, if he was to pull certain records, we might not know these records, but we know where to put the needle at, because there was a way he had the record formed that we just knew where it was. He’d pull this record and say, I want you to put this on next, and we would just put our mind to it and play it.

RBMA

So Bam would have his crates of records.

DJ Red Alert

15 crates of records of all different sounds.

RBMA

And he would select.

DJ Red Alert

It’s not for us to select, he’d select. Whatever he’d select is what the MC has to be ready to ride over. He’s like the general, if he tells you to go, you go, if he tells you this is what you play, you play.

RBMA

Did he have the labels blacked out at that time?

DJ Red Alert

Either blacked out or he would do what Herc did, soak the labels off and switch them. They could be two different records. He’d learn how to slide it off and put it on another record, just in case you were to go past and see that label, “OK, I know what that record is.” You go to the store and buy the record, you got the wrong record, he fooled you. Bam did the same thing, but then he blacked them out with his own records or had his own style. But me and Jay knew what it was.

RBMA

So for someone who might not know, why was he doing that?

DJ Red Alert

Because at that time, at the beginning of the hip hop era, every DJ was recognised for certain records. Flash was recognised for certain records, Bam was recognised for certain records, Theodore was recognised for certain records. Everybody had an identity of their sound and his style, but Bam beat everybody up because he had a wider selection of records.

RBMA

What’s the difference between Bam and Herc in terms of the styles they play?

DJ Red Alert

Herc, once again, is the person who started the whole set. He’s the beginner, and not only that, he had a well respected soundsystem. If you had a McIntosh amp, you earned respect because at that time it was hard to get a Macintosh, who had that kind of money?

RBMA

That’s not the Macintosh computer, Macintosh amplifier.

DJ Red Alert

The amplifier, yeah, in the street you gained respect if you’ve got a Mac, you had a mean soundsystem. We learned how to build the soundsystem through the credibility of my cousin Jay because as he went to high school he learned to take up carpentry and he built speakers. Jay built speakers that were bigger than him, he used double scoops. And we, with our devilish ways, we went downtown and at that time in the train system they had bullhorns, we used to steal the bullhorns, take them home, soak them, clean them, and we used the horns, and then find where we could get little tweeters, and built tweeter boxes. So we did everything from scratch. And then the difference is between Herc and Bam, Herc is the beginner, then Bam came, perfected it and took it to another level. It’s like, everybody knows about Dr J, but here comes Michael Jordan taking it to another level.

RBMA

So can you give us some examples of records that Bam came up on that were far outside the genre?

DJ Red Alert

He came up with "Impeach The President", "Last Night Changed It All" by Esther Williams, this record called "On The Top".

RBMA

He would reach into rock, into European records.

DJ Red Alert

He would reach into all different kinds of music. Then a couple of years later the recording field came in, and when the recording field came in a lot of independent labels would start putting out records. Enjoy under Mr Bobby Robinson, Mr Peter Brown, I forgot his label, but he put out people like Spoonie Gee and Willie Wood.

RBMA

Sound Of New York.

DJ Red Alert

Yes, Sounds Of New York. By that time, Paul Winley stepped to Bambaataa and said: “I want to make a record.” And that’s when he put out Zulu Throwdown and that was the Soulsonic Force, which was Lisa Lee, Ikey C, Chubby Chub and Ice Ice.

RBMA

And that was ’79?

DJ Red Alert

’79/’80.

RBMA

The gentlemen you mentioned, Bobby Robinson, Paul Winley and Peter Brown, Patrick Adams, they were entrepreneurs in Harlem who’d experimented with lots of different musical styles over the years. What was the turning point because rap had never been on a record, it was just in the party?

DJ Red Alert

I’ve got to give respect for every individual you just mentioned, because they felt something that nobody else felt. They were the trendsetters, they were willing to take a chance as they independently saw how the people were acting in the street. Another thing, this music, we used to tape all the parties and they were popular circulating around the hood in Harlem and the Bronx. These tapes were being sold like crazy, I used to make a lot of money off these tapes because I used to tape every Zulu Nation party. And I guess that caught their ears, because they said: “Let’s get these people who are making these tapes and get them in the studio.” So that’s what they did.

RBMA: W

hat was the progression from originally hearing: “Rock, rock y’all,” “Yes, yes y’all,” and an MC for a DJ in the party to an actual MC reciting rhymes and routines? Who were the people taking it beyond that?

DJ Red Alert

It had to be people such as Melle Mel and his brother Kid Creole, they started becoming storytellers, having routines. Then you had other people come along such as Grandmaster Caz, who was known as Casanova Fly at the time, and guys like Whipper Whip and Donald Rock, they were known as Salt and Pepper because one was light-skinned and one was dark-skinned. They was always doing the storytelling, so even though you always had the: “Yes, yes y’all, rocking to the beat,” they took it to another standard. That was growing up in the Bronx, there were other people growing up in Manhattan such as the Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee, LA Sunshine and Special K right along with Spoonie Gee. They were always telling stories, so they were taking it to another level as far as MCing was concerned.

RBMA

Now, a lot of people outside that community, the first record with rapping on it they heard was the Sugarhill Gang.

DJ Red Alert

No, not really, it was really a combination of the two. It was "King Tim III" by the Fatback Band and a little bit of rapping on this record called ”Must Be The Music" by Secret Weapon. I guess between the two, people still look at that as more dance/disco records, it wasn’t straight up rap. But it so happened that Big Bank Hank, who was manager of the Cold Crush Brothers, had a tape of their music at a job he was working at in a pizza parlour in New Jersey. Either Sylvia [Robinson] or someone affiliated with her heard the tape and said: “Is that you?”, and he said: “Yeah,” lying. But it was really his group. They said: “I want you to go ahead, I’m forming this group, you want to be in it?” So he said to Caz: “Can you get me some rhymes?” He pulled out his book of literature and said: “Pick whatever you want.” Caz being Caz, in his street mind he’s thinking, 'You’re going to look out for us because you’re our manager'.

RBMA

So the manager of the group had the tape he was listening to at his part time job at the pizza place. Sylvia Robinson, or someone associated with her, came in and said: “That’s good, I want to put you on my label Sugar Hill.”

DJ Red Alert

That’s right.

RBMA:

And the rhymes that Big Bank Hank used in "Rapper’s Delight" were taken from Grandmaster Caz, and if you actually listen to the record he says: “I’m the c-a-s-a-n-o-v-a the rest is f-l-y”, and that’s Casanova Fly, which is Caz’s name.

DJ Red Alert

That’s his official name because Caz was known as a DJ before he was an MC. So we move on and progressed more and more with rap records coming along on different labels. We had moved from parties in the Bronx and Long Island, we’re doing Jersey, parts of Connecticut, we thought it was big because we were moving around, not only in the tri-state area. Bam had come across two individuals, Tom Silverman and another by the name of Rizzi Blue. Tom Silverman was of course the CEO of Tommy Boy, Rizzi Blue was a punk rock promoter, they both invited him to the downtown side. Otherwise Tom Silverman invited him to the recording side, Rizzi Blue invited him to the club side, so that’s when we started being open to another different audience. We started falling in with punk rock, new wave, hip hop, all under one roof. So imagine, we’re doing our thing jamming and there’s these people with this crazy mohawk. We look at them as weird and crazy, but still we learn to fit in. We came across various artists at that time like Nina Hagen, Devo, Talking Heads, Men At Work, we were playing clubs like Negril, Danceteria. During that time from Negril to Danceteria, that was when Tom Silverman came and said: “Pull out a couple of MCs to form a group and make a record.” Now on the side of the Soulsonic Force, of these ten MCs, three of them were in a group that me and my cousin Jazzy [Jay] had. First we were called the Jazzy 3, then we re-formed as the Jazzy 5. We picked them first because they had a little style of their own and they made a record called "Jazzy Sensation".

RBMA

Gwen McCrae...

DJ Red Alert

Right. So by the time we were getting ready to come out at the Danceteria, we were getting ready to make our next move. Tom had joined Bam with Arthur Baker and John, and that was the one that opened the door for all of us, "Planet Rock". That was in ’82, and by the time we got to the Roxy, that was our introduction to the rest of the world.

RBMA:

Now a lot of people might not realise what Red was talking about, moving downtown. There wasn’t a lot of interaction between the uptown and downtown scenes.

DJ Red Alert

No, there wasn’t because the downtown scene was just coming to the end of the disco era. As it was coming to the end the new wave and punk rock was coming in, and it was coming in very heavy. But they only had a taste of the hip hop sound. People like Fab Five Freddy, who introduced that to Blondie, and you saw how that took off. And various others, so this was like an open door for us to come and show our skills.

RBMA

Fab Five Freddy moved between the two scenes pretty easily. He introduced the downtown people to what was going on in the Bronx and as a result of that you had records like "Rapture" by Blondie and you can hear Debbie Harry do her little imitation.

DJ Red Alert

It became like nationally known, worldwide.

RBMA

By coming downtown to a club like Negril, which was kind of a reggae club.

DJ Red Alert

It was a reggae club, it used to be known as Bob Marley’s club. That was our introduction coming down there. I think it was on 13th Street and 2nd Ave.

RBMA

That’s right, and Danceteria was very much a new wave and punk club. That was where you could see anything and everything.

DJ Red Alert

Oh man! That was when I started acknowledging and experiencing things I had never seen in my life as far as people are concerned. It definitely came to if it was the same sex, I was scared to go to the bathroom at one point.

RBMA

But musically things just exploded as far as the different types of music that everyone was being exposed to.

DJ Red Alert

And vice versa.

RBMA

You had a group like Kraftwerk that would become very influential in the sound of "Planet Rock".

DJ Red Alert

Absolutely. Bam had a little twist of Kraftwerk, a little bit of funk, and he gave the ideas to Arthur Baker and John Robie to go to the studio and put it all together and he called it electro funk. We had no idea that that record was really going to touch the world. If you think about it, behind that one record, how many records that came out, whether it was dance or what, had that electro sound? And that was going on for two or three years.

RBMA

There are people to this day who are mentioning how important "Planet Rock" was to everything that came afterwards.

DJ Red Alert

Then you had a twist to it when you went far South and they started adding more bottom to it and it became the bass music. But the official substance of it was the "Planet Rock", that’s what it was.

RBMA

So how did things move forward as you went into the mid-'80s?

DJ Red Alert

During that time as we went forward from the Danceteria to the Roxy, we started building up at the Roxy so much, the audiences were getting bigger and bigger. The Roxy was known as a skating ring, a well-known rollerskating ring, for years and years. But it just got so popular on a Friday, we were averaging about 3.500 people on a Friday night. Again, there wasn’t no major advertisement, not on radio. It was the Village Voice or just the downtown scene with the flyers and stuff. But it was like a melting pot, you had all different nationalities coming together and that’s where we started learning to play everything: r&b, punk rock, new wave, hip hop, rock, alternative, Caribbean, dance. We just learned to play everything together. Not only that, we started seeing a lot of celebrities coming like it was the norm. What was her name that was married to Mick Jagger? Bianca, she was there all the time, Rick James was there all the time. It was the birth for people like Madonna, who was coming in at that time. It was the place where DST got to meet Herbie Hancock.

RBMA

 "Rockit".

DJ Red Alert

They were just there. During that time we had a radio show on an independent station, on WBL 105.9, where people always feel that was where hip hop radio was created because you had Mister Magic playing it for the first time back in 1980. We had a show on there called Zulu Beats and the person who was the spearhead was Afrika Islam, who was the Son Of Bambaataa, well he wasn’t the son, but we used to call him the Son Of Bambaataa. I used to come down there all the time because everybody knew me for having all the tapes of the parties and I’d bring them down and he’d play them. Islam was on top of his game, he was one of the baddest. A little later on there were some people coming from the radio station, Kiss FM, they were hearing so much about it they came down, a guy by the name of Barry Mayo who was the programme director at the time, he said: “We have interests in forming a mix show with some hip hop in it.” Already WBLS had introduced Mister Magic over there in ’82 with his show Rap Attack. So Kiss FM, who are their competitors, wanted a mix show with some hip hop involvement, and they wanted Islam. Islam didn’t show up to a couple of appointments, so they came to Bam and said: “Who’s the next person you have in mind?” My cousin Jazzy, he was the next person in line. Jazzy did it for a couple of months. He didn’t get paid for the mixes, but he gained great exposure for the parties and the studios. Jazzy got fed up and said: “I don’t want to do it anymore.” Because he wasn’t getting paid. You know the mentality of the streets, you’re supposed to get yours right off the top. So they came to Bam: “Who’s the next person you’ve got in mind?” “Well, we’ve got this guy Red Alert.” They brought me in October of ’83 and I did it for a few months without pay. Then ’84 I got my first cheque, which wasn’t much, but at that time I was on every other week because the other week they used to have on Shep Pettibone andTonyHumphries, and they were known for the dance music and especially Tony Humphries for the house. So I was on every other week. Then every time I only got paid $100, but look at all the exposure I got. Then after seven months they brought in Chuck Chillout and they alternate me and him back and forth on Saturdays, and we used to be on from 11 to 2. Another group they had on was Latin Rascals. I think they came in before Chuck Chillout. But they were known for their style with the editing, they were getting good deals in production.

RBMA

So they were featuring different styles at that point. I guess around ’85/6 there was a breakthrough because you had the first samplers and people were able to make their own music without drummachines. Who were some of the first people you heard doing that stuff?

DJ Red Alert

I definitely have to state, god bless the dead, Scott La Rock, because the way he sampled the bits and pieces of James Brown for the record South Bronx, and I’ll never forget the first time I heard it at a club I used to play called Latin Quarters. They were pissed off with the situation with Mister Magic. They were behind a group called 23.16 [ed. note:12.41], a record called "Success Is The Word" that was on Sleeping Bag.

RBMA

This is KRS' and Scott La Rock, their first group.

DJ Red Alert

And Mister Magic at the time had a big reputation for dissing everybody, he even dissed me on the radio, he would diss everybody. He thought he could do that. When he dissed them they were pissed, because it was so bad the group were even dropped off the label. So when they came across this group of people who had Rock Candy Records they formed Boogie Down Productions. When they heard this record by MC Shan, who was on Marley Marl’s label, who was part of Mister Magic’s crew, called "The Bridge", they thought, 'OK, we’ll do an answer to it'. That was another thing that came out of the era, the answer records, which began with Roxanne so they did an answer, which was South Bronx. The first night I heard it, there was this big guy who DJed at Latin Quarters every Tuesday called Raoul. Scott gave it to Raoul on the acetate, he played it, oh my god, everybody's going crazy. He took it off, played it again, crazy. After two plays of the acetate Scott took it off and gave it to me, said: “That’s for you to play on the radio.” That’s one of the first sample records I listened to.

RBMA

And that of course sampled James Brown and James Brown at that time was the guy to sample.

DJ Red Alert

He’s got to be the most sampled person ever. At that same time Marley was doing a lot of sampling of bits and pieces too. A lot of people don’t know Marley was doing his production in his room where he lived in the Queensbridge projects. Sampling became so popular everybody jumped on board. The drummachine went through so many different theories. People used it so clever from the era of "Planet Rock" through to where it became so simple with Run DMC, they didn’t add to much to it, it was just drums. People were getting tired so they wanted to do something different and that’s when the sampling came in.

RBMA

What were the big records you were playing back at that time? The show had evolved from a little bit of hip hop to all hip hop.

DJ Red Alert

Once again it was a mixture where they wanted to be diverse with r&b and hip hop. But the hip hop started coming in more and more strongly. As it came stronger it became more hip hop, fewer r&b and dance. Me and Chuck used to alternate, we used to be on 11 to 2, they used to have us on reel-to-reel, they didn’t have us on live. The reason we moved from 11 to 2 down to 9 to 12, down to prime was because they heard our tapes and realised we weren’t into editing and splicing. They said: “How come you ain’t into editing and splicing?” We said: “This is what the streets feel. The same way you hear on the radio, this is what we play in the club. If they don’t hear you play that way, they figure you for a phoney. So you learn how to play straight out.” So that’s when they moved us down to and put Chuck on Friday and me on Saturday, 9 to 12. During that time the war between the radio was starting to take place. We were on the same time as Magic and we were giving him hell, but it was healthy. Even then I skipped over something. During the Roxanne, Roxanne era, which UTFO started the craze, Shante, who’s affiliated with Marley, did the answer. Then Sparky D did the answer to Shante, Sparky D did Sparky’s Turn answering Shante and she was produced by Spider D. They were all affiliated with Russell Simmons and Rush Production. I used to hang out at Russell’s office at the early stage. She met me and said: “You want to be my DJ?” “OK.” There was always a rivalry going on because I represent for her, Marley represent for Shante. We were on the road all the times doing shows. It was crazy because even though we’re going at each other’s throat, we looked out for each other on the road regardless of whatever was going on. In fact Fly Ty, their road manager, was my roommate. It’s good to see even to this day Sparky and Shante are great friends. Me and Marley, we worked at the same radio station and we laughed about how people tried to compare us because we were so close.

RBMA

It’s really true back in those days it was serious.

DJ Red Alert

Years later they see how me and KRS-One got along with Shan and Magic and did a Sprite commercial. So even though we were at each other, look how it turned out later on.

RBMA

And later on around ’86/'7, your nephews got involved.

DJ Red Alert

No, they got involved around the late '80s. When you talk about ’86/7, I was doing a club called Union Square. The first set of people, in the early '80s you had the Run DMC, Whodini, The Fat Boys. When you get into ’86/7 here come Eric B & Rakim, BDP, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Moe Dee as a solo artist and various others. And that’s when I started DJing over at Latin Quarters and getting more involved with BDP and building relations with people such as Mark 45 King, that’s my man through thick and thin, and building my criteria. What came in was the visual aspect, the videos, and all those things that meant I learnt how to market myself, build my self up to another standard. Now when it came to the late '80s that’s when my nephew, he’d been asking me for the longest: “Yo, me and my group want to do our record.” So after they graduated I said: “Let me give you a shot.” So my man Tony D who was a producer and DJ of a group called Bad Boys, who had a record called Inspector Gadget, he was always saying: “Whenever you have a group, let me know when you’re ready.” So I took them over to Tony D. The first record they did was a tune called "The Breaks", which was a sample of the b-side to "Funky Chicken" by Rufus Thomas, "Do You Wanna See It?". So they were going to use that, but they went ahead and wrote this other song, with a slogan, which was always used in my family, one my brother was always saying. Any time he’d see a female he’d say: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, she want my Jim Browski, she want my Jim Browski.” So my nephew Mike Gee and Shazam, later on known as Afrika, put their heads together and made Jim Browski. That opened the door for them as the Jungle Brothers.

RBMA

That was their first record, Jungle Brothers featuring DJ Red Alert. You were in on the recording of that?

DJ Red Alert

Yeah, they had me doing all the segues, "Word up!", all the stuff like that.

RBMA

And I think on the b-side of that they were cutting up "Impeach The President".

DJ Red Alert

 "Bragging & Boasting", yeah, that was Sammy D on the cut.

RBMA

At that point you had seen hip hop, rap music progress from being something almost unheard of outside that small community uptown. It moved downtown, then it moved to the tri-state area, then all of a sudden there were videos being made, MTV happened around that time, people needed videos and you were getting the chance to travel across the country.

DJ Red Alert

The first time I travelled across the country was in ’85. I went overseas with Bam, me, Ikey C, Lisa Lee, graffiti artist by the name of Brim and the Dynamic Breakers. So we went over there and I was amazed because I had no idea. A lot of the kids were running up asking for autographs. How the heck did they know who I am? I learned that a lot of people would tape me off the radio, bring it over to London and in London pirate radio was popular. People used to make their own radio stations, transmit between various blocks in their local areas. They would play the entire show, commercial and everything. I discovered that wherever I travelled. People would tape the show, go into the service, go and see their family, and the tapes would travel. People would come up and say: “I make money off you.” “How you make money off me?” “Yo man, I’m in school, I have to learn how to make money. I tape you off the radio, make a copy and sell it.” I couldn’t be mad because later on people would hire me to do school gigs, homecomings, so instead of paying for your own promotion, they do it for you. So when you look at that and how people acknowledge you overseas, to the point where you become involved in different groups and learn how to market yourself in the visual and the audio, you just enhance the whole thing. The last thing, honestly, that was on my mind was the money. The money was good, it wasn’t great, but it was good. But when you’re so much involved with something you enjoy doing you just keep rolling. That’s what I think for a lot of people before me, the artists and musicians, was the love of it. I was reading up and saw the movie Listen Up by Quincy Jones, which gave me knowledge of what he went through. Then I’d take time and listen to what other people went through, but they still show a passion and they’re still around doing it. The money is the last thing you think of. Of course, you think about the money later on because my concern today is the family I have, take care of my wellbeing. I’m proud to say my youngest is in the first year at college, my oldest just made me a grandfather. But during that primetime I wasn’t thinking about the money, just doing it, enjoying it, having fun with it, proceeding with it, let it roll.

RBMA

What do you think the attitude of some of the pioneers, who you knew and came up with, would be when they look back and see what they helped start has become? Most of them, they saw next to no monetary reward for what they’ve done.

DJ Red Alert

Of course, a lot of the pioneers are very bitter because they don’t see any return from what they started. But you’ve got to think in these terms: once again, I always use this as an analogy because it’s what I loved before I got into music, Dr J was one of the most creative people in basketball, someone who took it to another level, but he wasn’t getting that money compared to what you see Lebron getting now. So it’s all in the form of time. The pioneers were doing their thing and taking it in their stride, but nobody directed them about the business, about the notion. Here it is, they become naïve and get caught out there. So the next people that come around, they’re the ones that start collecting. “Yo, where’s mine?” You can be mad or you can not be mad, but you must allow yourself to learn, and not only that, maybe you can’t be on stage, but you can go behind the scene to conduct the next person, show the next person, you may collect from them. That’s the way to go about it.

RBMA

I know that you’re going to play some music for all the people here in Seattle and you’re going to have to get prepared for that, so we’re not going to get too in depth, but I’d like to see if you can give the people here an idea of some of the foundation records that are essential for understanding the hip hop spirit. Talk about the breaks.

DJ Red Alert

Well, what I’ve brought tonight, I’ve brought records from the beginning of the hip hop era and a lot of the old school rap records from the '80s. Plus I’ve brought some old reggae and some old classics. I feel I’ve just brought some feel good music, some good old feel good music that people can reminisce about and enjoy and vibe with.

RBMA

Now, what about if we’re out at the club tonight and we hear a song that we love but we don’t what the title is? Now do you have your labels blacked out or switched around?

DJ Red Alert

No, I didn’t do that. I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you.

RBMA

Sounds good. Red’s definitely still on the radio, a big presence to this day. Can you tell people where they can hear you?

DJ Red Alert

Yes, back in New York I do Power 105.1 the Old School At Noon, Monday to Fridays at 12. Aside from that I’m on Sirius Satellite Radio, been on Sirius for four years on a channel called Boombox. It’s very clever for what I’m programming because I’m playing old school hip hop with Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Crystal Method, everybody within that sect.

RBMA

So you’re playing Prodigy in your sets?

DJ Red Alert

Listen here: nobody expected me to be cutting up "Honky Tonk Woman" by The Rolling Stones.

RBMA

No, they didn’t.

DJ Red Alert

So I’m just learning to be creative and open-minded.

RBMA

So it seems like the real spirit of hip hop might be about being creative rather than following a particular trend.

DJ Red Alert

Yes, it is. The reason why you heard the term hip hop, it came from the media. The media used to always the hear the MCs reciting: “The hip, the hop, the hippety,” they said: “What’s that? The hip hop, the be-bop, oh, that’s hip hop.” So it became a stamp and people look at it as a music form and not acknowledging everything else that was going on besides the music. When we were not being able to go downtown to certain places because of our age, or because you had to have a certain attire, you weren’t allowed to express yourself. Everybody just stayed in the neighbourhood and became as they are, and before you know it, they perfect their footwork, or what you do on the dancefloor, or what you do on the mic, or what you do playing certain records or drawing on the trains or drawing on the walls. That became part of a culture that got together at one time.

RBMA

I want to give everyone a chance to ask anything they might have on their minds, take the chance to talk to somebody who was there at the beginning. I’d like to open it up now.

Participant

The founding fathers of hip hop like Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, they’re all DJs and at a certain time the spotlight changed from the DJs to the MCs. As a DJ, how did you feel when that happened?

DJ Red Alert

I feel you should spotlight everyone as an equal. Once the recording field came in place they emphasised the person who was recording, who was the MC. If you’re going to put on James Brown, also put on the Famous Flames, which was the group. But they don’t do that within the marketing and promotion, they only focus on the rapper and leave the DJs out. In the beginning you used to hear Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five and Eric B & Rakim, to give an example. The only people who do that today are Gang Starr, you get them both, they’re equal, the MC and the DJ. Not only that, but a lot of rappers don’t even have DJs now, they just want to use a machine. So it’s the recording field that really dissected everything. Anybody else?

Participant

I was wondering how you got your DJ name?

DJ Red Alert

Before I got into music – I usually skip this part – I was known for playing basketball, high school ball. I was one two-pick, I was one little narrow-ass skinny big-afro kid. Everybody knew my style of play and the first thing they did when I was up and down the court was scream out the sounds of the firemen (makes sound like siren blaring) and then somebody starts saying: “Red alert, red alert.” That name just stuck. At the same time, I get a load of everybody so they just added Kool to it. And that’s what happened.

Participant

I guess another good one, ask a DJ who they’re favourite DJ is or do you not have one?

DJ Red Alert

It all depends, there’s so many different ones that I enjoy. There’s a guy back in New York, originally from Philadelphia, Rich Medina, he’s bad. There’s the guy everybody knew as the MC D-Nice, he got into DJing, he’s doing his thing now. Who else can I say? I still enjoy my cousin Jazzy, he’s still on point with his cuts, and Theodore. It all depends on what mood it is.

Participant

And another one, are there any records you’re looking for that you still haven’t found?

DJ Red Alert

You’ve got me right there. I can’t think of any right now, but if I come up with any I’ll tell you.

Participant

I just asked because it seems like you’ve got a lot of records. How many would you say you have?

DJ Red Alert

Nowhere near Bam, I know that. But I’ve got a great amount, because I still receive records everyday.

RBMA

I ran into your nephew the other day and he told me there was a whole house full of records that belonged to you that he had to get rid of. It was all promos from back in those days. He said there were 10.000 records he had to get rid of. He’s got a lot of records.

DJ Red Alert

Not only that, rest in peace to my mother, she used to always get mad because she used to complain about the records (makes muttering sound). I said: “Mum, it pays the bills.” God bless her. That’s another thing I meant to mention, my mother had a big part in my career. During the time when I was getting into DJing, I’d be in the back playing and my father, rest in peace, would say: “Cut that off, cut that damn shit off.” My mother used to say: “I’d rather have him in the back than have him in the street." "I don’t want to hear that.” My father, I got involved in the radio but then he passed away. Then I’d start winning awards and I’d always say to my mother: “I wish dad was here to see this seeing as how he used to complain.” And my mother would say: “He’s looking at you right now, he’s looking down at you and he’s smiling.” A little later when my mother had retired, she became like a mother to everybody who used to come by, because my house was the house to quote/unquote, the house to hang, sleep, whatever. Everybody from the Jungle Brothers, Tribe to De La, to Latifah, to Lyte, everybody just came in there and vibed and everybody took their mums. Been three years since she’s no longer with me, but she had been the backbone for me, my nephew Mike and a host of others. She was a spearhead, definitely a spearhead.

RBMA

Rest in peace.

DJ Red Alert

Hard to get out those couches right.

Participant

Coming from South Africa to the US and looking in, the hip hop scene outside of the US, there’s more appreciation for the old school outside than there is here. My question is, rock music still acknowledges Mick Jagger, all the old legends, so how do you feel about the young generation trying to deny the people who laid the foundations?

DJ Red Alert

From generation to generation, instead of acknowledging what went before them, it’s a principle they want to be acknowledged first. That’s a general fact, there’s always going to be history before you. Some people, not everyone, are always going to have their thing where they say: “That was them, this is me, acknowledge me, this is what’s happening.” Until it’s going to be their turn, when they get older and someone else comes along. You think about I, I, I, but if it wasn’t for them, them, them, there wouldn’t be no you, you, you. So respect the people before you, and not only that, but if you respect the people before you, not only won’t they forget you, but they’ll pull you along. That’s why we still talk about James Brown today. The average little kid still knows about James Brown, the average little kid still knows about Michael Jackson. Sad part about hip hop is the average kid still doesn’t know about Big Daddy Kane. So stop thinking about yourself. Yes, you want to build, you want to be acknowledged, but acknowledge the people who helped you.

RBMA

Do you think people out there will do that?

DJ Red Alert

That comes from the media, the sad part, radio. Radio only wants to go with its advertisers because that’s business. If you have a radio station, it doesn’t have to be r 'n' b and hip hop, you could have any genre but they cater to an audience demo of 18 to 34. They only want you to play the music that will attract that audience. Now, if it’s records older than that audience they don’t want you touching it. If you don’t touch those records, those records will dissolve. If those records dissolve, nobody will know the history of the artists, the records, so forth. That’s the missing pattern. When I do the Old School At Noon back in New York, and I use Big Daddy Kane as an example because he was big at one point, the average female, maybe 20, 21, has never heard of him. Ten years ago she was 11, 12, but that was ‘94/‘95, whereas Kane’s heyday was 1990, so they don’t know that. Then again I try to bridge a little bit of everything for them to acknowledge. It’s only right for you to acknowledge your past.

RBMA

On the Old School At Noon show you’ll be touching on all the old school classics?

DJ Red Alert

There’s a guideline because it’s business. I don’t care for it, but I’ve got to go by the rules. They don’t want me go nowhere past 1990.

RBMA

That’s old school in New York?

DJ Red Alert

To that audience, the 18 to 34, they want me to be from 1990-up, they don’t want 1990-down. Then again, the other demos, like Kiss FM and WBLS where their audience is 25 to 54, they don’t want to be bothered with none of the early hip hop and I always complain and say to them: “But they grew up with that early hip hop.” They still try to put that stamp that hip hop is negative. OK, you may look at hip hop as negative but you look at it from the beginning to like ’88, none of the records were offensive at that time. They were either dance records or novelty records. It’s really from ’88 you started hearing the destruction of N.W.A. or King Tee, started hearing all the records that then got deep going into the '90s. People used to say Run DMC were loud and obnoxious but you appreciate Run DMC today. Radio has a lot to do with dissecting the audience. The Rolling Stones is now on tour. There’s a 12-year old knows about Rolling Stones through their parents. How come a 12-year old in the hip hop field can’t acknowledge Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five? That’s a mistake.

RBMA

It’s a good thing we have Red Alert out here giving us that perspective and I’m sure tonight he’ll have a lot in store as far as education.

DJ Red Alert

I just want you to have fun.

RBMA

Edutainment.

DJ Red Alert

I just want you to have fun. But I thank you for allowing me to be out here.

RBMA

That’s it, Red Alert.

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